Premiere: Rob Simonsen Captures Echoes of Family in “Refraction”

Rob Simonsen © Brad Torchia
Rob Simonsen © Brad Torchia
Composer Rob Simonsen and the LA-based collective he co-founded, The Echo Society, invite others to engage and affect the world of contemporary classical music. “Refraction” offers a peek into The Echo Society’s debut album set to release in February.
Stream: “Refraction” – Rob Simonsen
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Rob Simonsen is a curious contemporary classical composer. His film credits include contributions to the scores of acclaimed films like The Life of Pi (2012), Love, Simon (2018),The Age of Adaline (2015), The Spectacular Now (2013), 500 Days of Summer (2009) and others. Simonsen’s compositions often blend electronic and orchestral sounds, and tend to be anchored by piano. In September, he released his debut solo album, Rêveries, a collection of contemplative, piano-focused pieces.

Refractions - Rob Simonsen
Refraction – Rob Simonsen

Beyond the scores and solo projects, Simonsen co-founded a collective of musicians and artists in 2013, The Echo Society. With a core of seven contemporary composers, The Echo Society collaborates together, challenging each other to create unique contemporary works that resonate. There’s an urgency to their mission. A desire for change and evolution. Their shows present the interplay between music and visuals and sonic design contributing to this larger mission of evolving the genre. Because, in Simonsen’s words, “I don’t have time to waste and I don’t want to waste anyone else’s time…It’s important to understand truly why humans are going to see music. Why we love music. Why we consume it. And why we want to be there when it’s being performed and created.”

Atwood Magazine is proud to premiere Simonsen’s composition “Refraction” and offer an exclusive peek into The Echo Society’s compilation album, set to release in February. Each of The Echo Society shows has a theme. During a show focused on exploring family, “Refraction” was conceived in an hour and a half of live improvisation in the company of family and friends. It was later honed into the six minute album version. The piece features a tape recording from Simonsen’s youth where you can picture his family sitting in their living room⏤ his sister singing nursery rhymes and mother encouraging her to share more. By compressing the sample to a single pitch he can control on a keyboard, Simonsen transforms an intimate, yet ordinary, family moment into a weighted memory through song. He accompanies the sample with piano, giving the piece an emotional texture tinged with nostalgia. Simonsen is moved and it shows.

Rob Simonsen © Brad Torchia
Rob Simonsen © Brad Torchia

I think that’s actually where a lot of the work comes in, at least when you’re scoring, is fighting between having a specific agenda that you’re trying to achieve and using the inner critic to help you get to what you know you need to be getting at while not completely killing off new ideas and creative inspiration. It’s a very interesting dance. I’m constantly humbled by it.

Simonsen and The Echo Society contribute to the contemporary classical landscape beyond offering an alternative to the traditional orchestral performance ⏤ an invitation into the world of classical music as it exists today. While the traditional classical world demands you quiet and minimize yourself in the presence of an art which is greater than you, the contemporary classical world, presented by those like-minded to The Echo Society, begs you to react and engage and allow its echoes to affect your life and work.

Listen to “Refraction” below and enjoy Atwood’s chat with Rob Simonsen about his composition process, what ‘work’ means to him, his perception of the contemporary classical genre, the origins of The Echo Society and much more.

Stream: “Refraction” – Rob Simonsen
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Atwood Magazine: What is the most challenging part of the process for you? Does composing ever feel like work?

Rob Simonsen: I think the word “work” gets a bad rap. I think a lot of the best things require a lot of work. Sometimes things just fall out of you or they just fall out of the sky and a giant gold nugget gets unearthed because you accidently kicked the dirt. That kind of stuff does happen, but you can’t rely on that. Those things are little gifts and I think even if you do happen upon that sometimes you have to apply work to polish it or to cut it into the gem that is most useful. So it does feel like work. I think the question is does it feel like worth while work? Does it feel like meaningful work? Yeah, it is sometimes an exhausting process. But at the end of it, I think there’s a fulfillment that can happen.

You mention “listening to your inner ear” in an interview with Pop Disciple. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of listening and how it relates to the composition process whether for film or solo works? What hurdles do you have to get over to really listen to your inner ear?

Rob Simonsen: It’s a Phillip Glass quote. I think it’s in his autobiography. He talks about how composing is a lot about listening. I kind of stole that because it reflected my own experience of it all. I think that if you’re musically sensitive then there are certain things that make you feel a certain way. I’ve had so many powerful musical experiences in my life that I think I was driven to explore those, recreate them on my own, have a kind of capacity to build those kinds of moments and that’s kind of all I’m trying to do. If you are sensitive person and you can experience your own emotions in kind of a conscious way, then you can try to make that a conscious part of your creative process. You can just sit back and use yourself as a test subject. You develop this capacity to try to be objective with what you’re doing and kind of build your own critic which can also be extraordinarily dangerous. I think that’s actually where a lot of the work comes in, at least when you’re scoring, is fighting between having a specific agenda that you’re trying to achieve and using the inner critic to help you get to what you know you need to be getting at while not completely killing off new ideas and creative inspiration. It’s a very interesting dance. I’m constantly humbled by it.

Rob Simonsen © Brad Torchia
Rob Simonsen © Brad Torchia

I think that’s actually where a lot of the work comes in, at least when you’re scoring, is fighting between having a specific agenda that you’re trying to achieve and using the inner critic to help you get to what you know you need to be getting at while not completely killing off new ideas and creative inspiration. It’s a very interesting dance. I’m constantly humbled by it.

What does the amorphous genre of contemporary classical music look like in today’s world from your perspective?

Rob Simonsen: The landscape of all content and music and film that we are consuming is evolving at a very rapid pace. And there’s the world of concert contemporary classical musicians, and in that world, I think it’s very exciting, I feel like I stumble upon someone new all the time. There’s a lot of very bright musical ideas that are happening. If you go to some playlists on streaming services for an answer, you might get a very different answer depending on if it’s an algorithmic playlist or curated by someone. From certain viewpoints, the world [of contemporary classical music] is actually becoming quite homogenous. I think my record probably contributes to the homogeneousness of it. It’s a lot of soft piano, a lot of emotional pieces that have a lot of space to them and things that have a contemplative nature to them. And while I love that music, as is evidenced by the fact that I made a record with that, it seems like it’s everywhere and it’s exploded. I think it can be a very alluring music to listen to and to create because it’s very simple. And you don’t have to rely on a lot of very advanced musical theoretical skill to create a piece that might be considered a great contemporary classical piece because it’s more about a vibe. And I mean that with all due respect to people in this genre.

Where do you see the genre heading?

Rob Simonsen: It feels like an interesting moment for the genre to really develop into some new territories. There’s a lot of room to diversify or expand upon the genre that seems to have gotten a little solidified by the work that’s been done over the last 20 years by Max Richter, Dustin O’Halloran, and A Winged Victory and Nils Frahm and Erased Tapes and there’s this whole universe of this kind of stuff now. It depends on where you’re looking. In some places, it looks like a lot of similar music and in other places it looks like 17-year-old composers coming out and just crushing it with amazing ideas and utilizing acoustic instruments in a lot of really cool ways and that’s, in my opinion, different than the kind of solemn piano sub-genre of contemporary classical.

How did you come to co-found The Echo Society in 2013?

Rob Simonsen: When I came back home from visiting Dustin O’Halloran in Berlin, after having gotten to meet Kira Kira, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Moderat, and Francesco Donadello, I was thinking about how all the people that are here working in Hollywood, my musician friends, we are all artists. We all had something that sparked us with so much excitement and joy that made us want to do this. It’s so easy to just get lost in our studios and kind of have the blinders on and then when we are commiserating about the jobs and the work and I realized it’s kind of a wasted opportunity, we could be talking about art. And better yet we could be working with each other to make art. I connected this amorphous group of people I knew and we ended up talking about how great would it be to just start working on some ideas and having a space where we could have some of these ideas performed and work on blending electronics and orchestral instruments and everyone was kind of excited by the idea.

Do you have any goals for the future of The Echo Society?

Rob Simonsen: We’ve done six of them so far and they’ve all been very well attended and now we are about to start releasing recorded music and now we are trying to set up phase two which would be releasing music and having enough financial support that we can have full time employees and really start to be a little more consistently active. Up until now it’s been people who have jobs during the day and we are all trying to do this on the side and that can be tricky when everyone’s got jobs and deadlines. The idea is that we could be a real mainstay of Los Angeles and be a vital vein of art so that’s what we are trying to do.

Where and when did collaboration occur on the album? Did you all agree on a theme or a connecting thread for the album?

Rob Simonsen: One of the things that we did at a few Echo Society events was have salons where we shared our compositions with each other. I think initially we were acting more like typical composers who are very guarded and competitive or don’t want to be influenced by each other and then I think we realized that we could make the idea less about being a showcase of the individual composer and more about designing a night of art. It turned out great and then the next one we had two salons, one where we showed up with a very rough idea and talked about it and the next one was when we were sharing each other’s basically finished pieces and people had the option to get feedback or not, everyone was in control of [how much feedback they wanted]. We really truly respected each other artistically and everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and we can only make our compositions better if we lean into each other and trust each other. And it’s been a really inspiring thing. I don’t think anyone has stolen anyone else’s ideas. At least for Echo Society shows. I think that it is going to be a continuing thing as we continue to do shows and bring other people in to interface with them more. And try to offer this kind of core of people who are invested in trying to make someone else’s composition the best that it can be, and in the larger context of the show, to make the show the best that it can be.

Rob Simonsen © Brad Torchia
Rob Simonsen © Brad Torchia

What inspired “Refraction”?

Rob Simonsen: “Refraction” was written for our last Echo show which was called Family. We started talking about our next Echo show right after Trump got elected and it was a very interesting time to think about what it meant to do our frivolous art shows when it felt like there was such turmoil happening in the world and in our country. It was also the realization that there were large parts of the country that weren’t really in good communication or good understanding or mutual respect with other large parts of the country. It’s kind of like a dysfunctional family where you might have the rebellious kid who yells and says they hate their family and wants to run away and kill everybody and the parents that just trying to do the right thing but might be making some terrible mistakes. Family seemed like a really good metaphor. And that was really Ben Wynn who kind of had that epiphany. So that’s where the theme came from but the composers were all free to interpret family however they wanted. It could be very political, it could be very personal, it could be an abstract idea.

Where was the idea for “Refraction” born?

Rob Simonsen: I had come across these tapes of me as a kid—not even making words yet, I think I was less than one, and my sister was there and she was singing songs that she had learned. My dad was in the room and my mom was there singing and getting my sister to sing and interacting with me and you know it dawned on me how much love there was there. I think that there is love inside of everyone and it kind of gets shaped by your experiences and by your genetics and by your brain and by your beliefs and by all these things. It can get distorted and dysfunctional and unhealthy or it can be healthy and functional and life-giving, but that that process is a little bit like light getting refracted by a prism. So you’ve got natural looking light that hits a prism and then it just gets refracted into all these different colors. That pure stream of love that we have in us, that we experience when we were growing up, it gets refracted through our psyches and through our parents psyches and it’s that shade—the combination of colors that we get bathed in—that affects how we build our prism and our stream of love will kind of pass through that lens.

How was that performance adapted for the album?

Rob Simonsen: I went through the [performance] recordings and highlighted my favorite moments and used that to make a little bit of a structured piece—still kind of keep it feeling a bit improvised. Listening to that sample by itself nearly brings me to tears and then I tried to play something that kind of scratches at this emotion of, you know, I think everyone starts out with such great intentions and I had a great childhood, by all stretches—but everyone has been given kind of the psychological box that their parents had for themselves, and I think a lot of time, everyone is just doing their best and then we get handed the box and have to continue trying to unlock it like Pandora’s Box. We get as far as we do and then if we have kids they are going to get the box at the level that we were able to solve it. I think that’s what is going on in the world, a long chain of people passing Pandora’s Box to the next generation—not quite opening it but making progress.

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